Jeannette’s Backup Speech
Preamble: This was the speech I wrote for Fantasticon, which I didn’t quite give (I stopped looking at my phone) and then basically rehashed at FantasyCon 2018 when I won Best Newcomer. I was not even slightly expecting it but also felt like I need to say something. This is way more eloquent written down than the half remembered version I spat out on stage but for those curious. Here is what it was sort of like.
Has it really been two hundred years since Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein?
Two hundred years of Science Fiction.
Though I’m a bit of a contrarian when it comes to the foundations of Science Fiction, so I will always shill for my girl Margaret Cavendish (Duchess of Newcastle). Especially when it comes to claims on who invented the genre.
The Blazing World is where it is at. I would very much like to be an empress to the animal people who will do science and debate theology with me. Sounds brilliant.
352 years of science fiction.
Regardless, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and that’s not just a matter of research and academia, it applies just as much to genre and suspension of disbelief. It is easier to get a reader to believe in something they have seen already in a different story. The scaffolding has already been built.
The writer no longer needs to hold the hand of the reader when walking them through the conceits of the genre. We can see this starkly in how early superhero films needed to build up to the flashy costumes, something we are now willing to just accept by the second scene.
And I love the strange worlds of our genres. I even love the tangled mess of taxonomy that goes on.
But the thing is about genre and genre conventions is that they aren’t written in stone. Nor are they fundamentals of the universe that we are uncovering like the laws of gravity.
They are very mutable.
I remember getting into far too many definition debates on steampunk forums. It’s almost a decade ago now (for the kids out there, a forum is basically a facebook group page with marginally better threading and sometimes better moderation).
We were hashing out over and over whether the word meant literary genre or aesthetic or philosophy.
Are we simply or even merely “Victorian Science Fiction”? Did Jules Verne or H G Wells write steampunk or it did it begin when K W Jeter gave name to what he and Tim Powers and James Blaylock were doing?
Should we noun-ify the word and declare that people can be “a steampunk” the way people can be “a goth” or “an emo.” And if they can be, what does it mean?
Not to mention we were constantly arguing at cross purposes. There are those who want to define things as they are and there are those who want to define things as they should be, or as they wanted them to be.
Steampunk was it was and and as it was defined was fundamentally and irrevocably Victorian, but *should* it be?
But I’m not here to talk about a pragmatic approach to genre taxonomy, though I have one. It boils down to acknowledging that tomtatos, mushrooms and brocolli are all functionally vegetables when you’re cooking.
My point is more this: Our genres are created by wonderful, falliable, terrible humans.
The assumptions, the conventions, the structures: they were all created by someone.
Mary Shelley’s structure of nested narration remains prominent within our genres, even as wider popular fiction tires of it. We still have that intertextuality of Frankenstein. After all, the monster gives us a literal list of books he has read and reviews them for us. Goethe. Milton and Plutarch, incidentally.
Colonisation is baked into how we talk about the stars. The very language of moon colony and Mars settlement. This comes from the generations of writers who have retold the colonisation of the Americas but with alien planets. That frontier fiction scrubbed clean of inconvenient peoples and made all the more heroic with interstellar triumph.
We all take for granted that “Hard Science Fiction” refers to scifi that adheres to the sciences. Yet when we say “science” in this context we inevitably mean physics, maybe chemistry. But we don’t mean linguistics, given how many aliens seem to be able to replicate syllables from human languages with their face holes and nothing ever seems particularly untranslatable. We also rarely mean geography, certainly not human geography or any of those social sciences.
Why is that?
I’m sure many will provide me with an answer that harkens to how physical laws are simply less mutable when it comes to the suspension of disbelief.
But no, it’s just John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine and the way some tell it, the man who single handedly brought about the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
Asimov called him “the most powerful force in science fiction ever”. but Campbell was not infalliable.
Far from it, he is also deeply racist, a cryptofascist and an early proponent of Dianetics, that is to say protoScientology. The great gatekeeper of hard science fiction taken in by L. Ron Hubbard’s pseudoscientific word vomit. The irony.
When Campbell took over the magazine, his editorial mandate and his vision for the genre became our vision for the genre. Even the idea that Science Fiction should be these idea-driven stories that can be phrased as a snappy “What if?” comes from him.
And whilst that might not superficially seem like a limitiation, such phrasing only allows so many uttered steps away from the mainstream. The white, European, masculine, able-bodied, unqueer mainstream.
After all, every “what if Faster Than Light travel is possible?” story is really a “what if we had FTL travel?” and who the author assumes to be “we” is always very telling.
Every other “what if aliens came to earth?” story is really a “what if aliens came to America?” story.
So much is unuttered and assumed.
But because these conceptions of genre aren’t fundamentals of the universe, because they aren’t like the laws of gravity, they can be challenged.
I find it easier when I can put a face onto the founders, the gatekeepers and the giants of the genre.
Their rules somehow feel more insignificant then. Smaller. Breakable.
For all that we traffic in escapism, it is an inescapable fact now the within the genre that there are those who want to dictate who should and shouldn’t write. Who should and shouldn’t be our heroes. Who should and shouldn’t win awards.
Our genres may claim lineage from a woman, but in the two hundred years since her, we have hardly done her proud. We forgotten and forced out so very many more women. It is deeply telling who does and doesn’t get the fancy reprints, the world-spanning translation efforts and the loving retrospectives.
We have had luminaries, certainly, giants in Octavia Butler and Ursula le Guin. And we have crowned new queens, such as N K Jemisin.
But we still have a cult uncritically regurgitating Lovecraft of Lovecraft, we still have a New Writers award named after John W Campbell. We are still beating back the Sad Puppies and the myriad rebrandings Gamergate.
I still had to walk past men shouting Nazi slogans as I walk into a convention centre. I think about that a lot. It haunts me.
Why do they find our genre of giants so hospitable? Why do they think they are welcome here?
And I know how familiar this speech seems. Have I not heard this before? And this isn’t just because Jeannette talks about this every time we give her a microphone. We have been having this conversation about the marginalised peoples, about unheard voices, about implicit assumptions for such a very very long time.
We can do better.
I have given face, given name to the giants of old. And if I have learnt anything in this genre, this gives me power over them. It gives us power over them.